BY: JERRY OBANYERO
On Sunday July 18, the cyberspace was awash by the news making the rounds about the purportedly sack of an estimated 40 pastors of Living Faith Church Worldwide also known as Winners Chapel founded by Bishop David Oyedepo. The pastor at the centre of it all or who brought the news to the public domain, certain Pastor Peter Godwin, said he and some other pastors in Ekiti State were handed each a termination letter dated June 25, 2021, signed by the Executive Secretary of the Church, certain Mr. Adebisi Aboluwade. The contents of the viral letter essentially state that the pastor was relieved of his job for his failure to meet the growth expectation index of the church. Also, the decision was reached after reviews of the pastor’s performances. The Pastor was asked in the letter to vacate his official residence and handover other appurtenances of the church to the Area Pastor. But, in another twist, or let me say, as a way of adumbration with is contrary, outside and beyond the official correspondence issued, Pastor Peter Godwin said upon receipt of the termination letter, he put a call to ‘the management of the church’ who informed him that his sack was as ‘a result of low income’.
Now, as humans is natural for us to be emotional when we hear a story like this especially when it has to do with a place of worship. However, law is not a place for emotion. Law is anchored on reason and rationality and considers in the final analysis if the intention is at par with the spirit of the law. This write up is a dispassionate opinion of the writer from legal viewpoint.
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First off, can a church sack its pastors or any of its workers? Legally, YES! Any church registered or incorporated assumes upon incorporation or registration the status of corporate body with power to sue and be sued and transact any dealing in its name and in line with its constitution. Also, the church can hire and fire its pastors, servants or workers. This is the contemplation going by combined reading of section 823 (2) and 838 (2) of Company and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) 2020. Pastor Peter Godwin though a pastor was hired as an employee of the church and issued appointment letter and job description. He could as well be fired by the church (employer) for failure to meet his terms of engagement or for any other reason.
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Secondly, is generating low income or failure to generate income a ground for Pastor Peter Godwin to be sacked? First, it is important we note that from piece of evidence available to us, which is a signed termination letter, nowhere is written that Pastor Peter Godwin was sacked for low income generation or failure to generate income. The reason adduced by the official correspondence is that he was fired for his failure to meet the growth expectation index of the church. Also, note that the said termination letter serves as an evidence admissible in the competent court of law in line with Section 83 of Evidence Act 2011. On the other hand, reason for the sack being low income generation as alleged by Pastor Peter Godwin can as best be passed as mere hearsay and should not be accorded much probative value. In his own words, he said he put a call to the church management who gave the reason for his sack as low-income generation. Who is/are the church management? Sections 37 and 38 of Evidence Act 2021 are crystal clear about hearsay; it is not admissible. Even the exceptions as provided in Section 39 of the said Evidence Act do not support Pastor Godwin’s claim, as such his claim should be discountenanced.
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But to answer the question above; assuming without conceding that the sack of Pastor Peter Godwin was because of low income or failure to generate income as alleged, the Church being his employer, would still be right to have sacked him! In Labour Law, with the exception of few cases, generally an employee does not define his job description or set the terms his employment. These are the call of the employer. The employee upon presentation of an offer letter is expected to either accept or reject the offer. If he does accept it, he is bound by same. More so, Section 11 of Labour Act gives either employer or employee right to terminate employment contract upon issuance of notice.
Although the common law practice as held by the Supreme Court in FAKUADE V. O.A.U.T.H (1993) 5 NWLR (PT.291) 47 and BABATUNDE AJAYI v TEXACO NIGERIA LIMITED & ORS (1987) ALL N.L.R. 471 that a master (employer) can sack his servant (employee) at any time with or without reason is gradually eroding with the establishment of National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN)pursuant to Section 254(C)(1) and (H) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, which saddles the Court with power to arbitrate labour disputes in line with the law of the land and international conventions. Still, the NICN in recent case of EBERE ONYEKACHI ALOYSIUS V DIAMOND BANK PLC. (2015) 58 N.L.L.R 92 held that an employer can sack his employee with good or justifiable reason. It can only be unfair when no reason is provided or when the reason is bad.
From the foregoing, we can decipher that the dispute between Pastor Peter Godwin and Living Faith Church Worldwide is labour inclined and has to do with contract of employment. From the evidence available, it is the opinion of this writer that the action of the Living Faith Church Worldwide is in tandem with the law. However, if the employee considers his sack unfair and unjust going by his terms of employment or for any other reason which has to do with breach of contract of employment, which has not been made available to the public, the appropriate place to take the matter to is the National Industrial Court of Nigeria. This is the court that has jurisdiction on labour matters. The church is a creation of law and is bound by the law of the land. Any aggrieved party, in this instance, the servant or employee of the church, can sue. The Church being a corporate body can within the law defend its action.
In conclusion, most people especially desperate job seekers quickly accept employment and sign off without studying the terms of employment and other conditions attached thereto or seeking legal advice. Some do that because they think the owner of the business is their relation or close friend or church. The Labour Law as regards employment or relationship between employee and employer is applicable regardless of the relationship between you and the employer or the status of the employer whether is a church or non-for-profit organisation. It is hereby advised that thorough study of employment letter before signing off or accepting same or seeking legal advice should be carried out or sought as of necessity.
JERRY 'OBANS' OBANYERO, ESQ., is a legal practitioner and writes from Lagos, Nigeria.